The British tradition of putting on some sort of theatrical exhibition at Christmastide goes way, way back. The medieval mystery plays gave us a few of our earliest carols, e.g., the Coventry Carol, and were old news by the time Shakespeare himself wrote a comedy to be performed on the “Twelfth Night” of Christmas. But the tradition came into its own in the 1800s, when traveling mummers would perform favorite stories that just got better with each re-telling. This leads us to the panto – short for pantomime – a holdover from Italian commedia del arte and its many stock characters. The panto continues today as a family-friendly, uniquely zany British tradition that, with some help from Theatre Nova in Ann Arbor, could become a new holiday tradition here in the United States.
“An Almost British Christmas,” directed by Theatre Nova Artistic Director Carla Milarch, includes the signature ingredients of panto: the telling of jokes (including adult-oriented euphemisms that go right over the children’s heads), caroling, audience interaction (boo the bad guys, cheer for the heroes), sweets tossed out to the audience, the surprise appearance of local celebrities, and three stock characters, including a Panto Dame (a man in drag) a “breeches role” for a young woman playing a boy, and some sort of animal, often a cow or horse, sometimes played by two actors in one costume. Tradition requires that through all the nonsense, jokes, singing and other interruptions, the three actors manage to tell some version of a story that everyone in the audience already knows. This might include a nativity story focusing on the Shepherds, the heroic deeds of St. George as defeats the embodiment of evil, or other wholesome favorites. If you live on this side of the pond, that favorite story might include a much maligned reindeer, an elf who wants to be a dentist, and an abominable snowperson. However, since this is panto – not TV – the show includes original songs and music by Ann Arbor composer R. MacKenzie Lewis, and an original script by the Theatre Nova Ensemble itself. Yes, zaniness ensues, with a distinctly Midwest tilt.
Artistic Director Carla Milarch talks about what brought about the creation of “An Almost British Christmas”: “Theatre Nova is always striving to present something fresh, and we wanted to honor that in our holiday show too,” she says. “We thought it would be great fun to incorporate this little-seen art form, because it is such a different style of audience interaction. The actors actually encourage the audience to boo the villain and cheer for the hero, and even to unwrap and eat the candy that we throw at them during the performance, which is an old Panto tradition. Of course we put our own American twist on it, with three actors playing all the parts, and we give the audience a little rundown of how everything works so no one feels left out. There’s even a surprise appearance by someone very near and dear to my heart.”
This Theatre Nova panto features three hard-working, fun-loving, multi-talented actors: Jennifer Graham, Vicki Morgan and Wayne David Parker in multiple roles. The other roles are filled by audience members, guest appearances, and an adorable scene stealer at the end – *spoiler alert* – by young William Powers, prodigy offspring of Ms. Milarch and her brilliant actor/husband Phil Powers.
The charm of this uniquely American panto is watching the performance by the three principals whose aerobic costume changes and marathon chase scenes in and out of the theatre are sufficient to overwhelm even a high-powered FitBit activity tracker. They sing and dance, tell jokes, and fearlessly engage in elaborate fight scenes (pole-in-the-middle-of-the-stage 11, actors 0). Production design is provided by Producing Director Daniel C. Walker and Education Director Becky Zarna Fox. Fight Direction is by Melissa Freilich, Musical Direction and original compositions are by R. MacKenzie Lewis. The show’s stage manager is Roberta Lake.
The opening night celebrity guests were members of Gemini, popular for their child-focused musical performances, and a delightful addition to the show. While some guest appearances remain a mystery, the following have been announced:
Saturday, November 28 – Magician Jeff Boyer
Sunday, November 29 – Charlie Sutherland
Sunday, December 6 – Mayor Chris Taylor and Eva Rosenwald
Thursday, December 10 – Elsa from Frozen
Friday, December 11 – Elsa from Frozen
Saturday, December 12 – Scott Crownover
Sunday, December 13 – Laurie Atwood
Thursday, December 17 – Laurie Atwood
Friday, December 18 – Santa Claus
Saturday, December 19 – Jazz trio: San, Emily, and Jacob
Sunday, December 20 – Courtney Riddle
Based on the enthusiastic participation of the opening night audience, this all-American panto is a hit with fun-loving adults and their enthusiastic children. The show is recommended for ages 5 and up. All candy distributed throughout the performance is in its original wrapper with an ingredients list provided for families with allergy concerns. Theatre Nova has marked all performances as pay-what-you-can, with a suggested donation of $20. Bring a toy in its original packaging to donate to Toys for Tots, and get a family ticket (two adults, two children) for $40.
“An Almost British Christmas” runs through December 20, 2015, with performances on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. All performances are at the Yellow Barn (416 W. Huron, Ann Arbor), which Theatre Nova converts into a professional thrust-configured theater venue six-times a year. The location offers free parking, as well as quick walking access to downtown restaurants. Nearby reference points are the Ann Arbor YMCA, the Big City Small World bakery, The Last Word, and the Sun Moon Yoga Studio. If you’re coming from Main Street, the entrance for parking is on the right, just after the train trestle. Misfits welcome.